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Everyone Loves to Hate the IPA

October 25, 2022

Story: Courtney Iseman

art: Andy Bourne


Everyone Loves to Hate the IPA

October 25, 2022

Story: Courtney Iseman

art: Andy Bourne

How did a style that was once the face of craft beer become so... cringe?

On a Saturday afternoon in Brooklyn, I sat at the bar at a favorite brewery, relishing the opportunity to unpack the eclectic tap list—an English-style mild ale, a grisette, an Italian-style pilsner—with the bartender. While I weighed my options, a group of 20-something guys tumbled in and stepped up to the bar. “What’s the haziest, juiciest IPA you’ve got?” one asked, before even glancing at the menu. 

IPA Through the Ages

1760s: Brewers start adding extra hops to all their beers headed to countries with warmer climates, like English porters and pale ales bound for India. 

1835: The first specific mention of “Pale Ale prepared for India” written as “East India Pale Ale” first appears in an English newspaper.

1878: Against a backdrop of lager-dominated American brewing, Peter Ballantine & Sons Brewing Co. in Newark, New Jersey, is one of the first U.S. brewers to make the English IPA.

1975: Fritz Maytag, a Ballantine fan who’d purchased Anchor Brewing Co., debuts Liberty Ale, a dry-hopped pale ale, and sparks a wave of American brewers pursuing those hoppy flavors.

1989: The IPA gets an official nod of acceptance in American brewing with the introduction of an IPA category at the Great American Beer Festival’s prestigious competition.

1991: In Oregon, Steelhead Brewing Co. founding brewer Teri Fahrendorf brews up a turning point, making an English IPA with only American ingredients—an American IPA.

1994: At Blind Pig Brewing in Southern California, Vinnie Cilurzo brews the Inaugural Ale, the first double IPA (DIPA). It’s not the last time Cilurzo would make IPA history.

2000: After founding Russian River Brewing Co. in Northern California, Cilurzo debuts what would become an instant IPA legend: Pliny the Elder, also a double.

2002: Stone Brewing Co.’s Ruination West Coast DIPA sets into motion the “IBU Wars,” a period of breweries angling to produce the boldest, bitterest IPA. 

2004: The New England IPA is born with the release of The Alchemist’s Heady Topper. The beer becomes hotly pursued, and advances IPA brewers’ culture of anticipated releases.

2005: Cilurzo strikes again, this time brewing the first triple IPA with Pliny the Younger, which people still travel and line up for on release day.

2007: Galaxy and Citra hops become available to brewers, their tropical flavor and aroma profiles shaping the hazy IPA.

2010: Beer-rating app Untappd is founded. It grows alongside the hazy IPA and helps “gamify” beer, attracting hazebros to boast about their NEIPA-conquering prowess.

2012: Mosaic debuts, joining Galaxy and Citra as a key hazy IPA hop.

2012: Tree House Brewing Co. in Massachusetts cranks the haze hype machine up a notch with the first release of its still-coveted Julius IPA.

2014: Other Half Brewing Co. opens its doors in Brooklyn, and would go on to be a hub of haze hype in New York, with fans lining up at 4 a.m. for releases. 

2014: Hyped Swedish brewery Omnipollo invents the “smoothie IPA,” with lactose for even more sweetness and body. This evolves into the “milkshake IPA,” with a collaboration brew the following year. 

2015: The Beer Judge Certification Program, or BJCP, legitimizes the NEIPA by adding the style to its official guidelines in 2015. 

2017: Bill Shufelt and John Walker launch Athletic Brewing Co., which would revolutionize nonalcoholic beer with high-quality craft options and finally offer IPA fans booze-free West Coast and hazy styles.

2018: Other Half launches Green City, a festival concentrating on IPAs that would prove there are more than enough haze fans to warrant an entire dedicated event.

2018: Wayfinder Beer in Portland, Oregon, invents the cold IPA. Bracingly bitter with a light body, clean yeast profile, and crisp, dry finish, it signaled the beginning of a shift away from the NEIPA.

2018: Hard seltzer brands like White Claw and Truly begin going viral on social media. The category would soon start stealing consumer interest from IPAs and craft beer in general.

2020: Pandemic-inflicted bar closures help canned cocktails explode in consumer interest. By 2022, they too are giving craft beer, and even hard seltzer, a run for its money.

If you’ve spent any time drinking over the past decade, you’ve probably met this guy. He is IPA Guy, and while the type has gone from fist-pumping bro who proves his masculinity by chugging the bitterest West Coast IPA to one who flexes his hypebeast prowess with Instagram shots of limited-release New England IPA, you still know him when you see him. “At any bar or brewery, you will hear someone say ‘IPA Guy’ not ironically,” says Robyn G. Weise, an assistant brewer at Wild East Brewing Co. in Brooklyn. 

IPA is craft beer’s biggest sales driver. Even as craft beer sales decelerate, data shows the IPA holds onto 41 percent of sales shares among craft breweries. It still excites many craft connoisseurs while simultaneously appealing to casual drinkers who don’t care about craft. But IPA is also... cringe. What happened? How did it go from a style that is an opportunity for creativity, and a valuable entry point for craft beer newcomers, to a punchline? 

IPA’s very origin story is rooted in oppression and colonialism. Brewers were boosting the strength and hopping rate on all ale styles, not just pale ales, for preservation purposes on long ship journeys to India and warmer climates as early as the 1760s. British-Asian journalist David Jesudason unpacked the IPA’s identity for Good Beer Hunting, referring to William Dalrymple’s book The Anarchy: The East India Company, Corporate Violence, and the Pillage of an Empire to discuss how England’s East India Company plundered Bengal and beyond. The EIC’s ships would have physically brought English pale ales to India, but the name “India pale ale” builds a false connection between this beer and India culturally.

“They were drunk by high-ranking British soldiers, not by people in India,” Jesudason says. “Locals wouldn’t be allowed to drink them or even allowed in bars that served them.” Yet, as IPAs evolved in England, they were marketed with a romantic image of sipping beers in a tropical climate. “That forgets all the blood, sweat, theft and genocide committed,” he explains. The whitewashing lives on. One of England’s best-known IPAs is Thornbridge Brewery’s Jaipur Beer, which was first brewed in 2005. Names, taglines and turbans on labels still foster faux nostalgia.

IPA’s true history remains buried in England, and is all but unknown in the United States. From a 19th-century influx of German immigrants to post-Prohibition consolidation of American beer under just a few behemoth brands pumping out yellow, fizzy water, the United States was a longtime lager land. Peter Ballantine & Sons Brewing Co. made one of the country’s few IPAs from the late 1800s until 1971, which inspired Fritz Maytag to make, four years later, Anchor Brewing Co.’s Liberty Ale, a dry-hopped pale ale that motivated more U.S. brewers to follow suit. As early craft breweries proliferated, American-made English IPAs did too, and the style soon began to evolve thanks to the embrace of American hops.

As founding brewer at Oregon’s Steelhead Brewing Co., Teri Fahrendorf squared the IPA firmly within American craft. “I wanted to make all my beers with American, not imported, ingredients,” Fahrendorf says. Launched in 1991, her Bombay Bomber (note the bogus Indian marketing connection borrowed from the U.K.) was a hit, and inspired similar efforts with U.S.-grown ingredients. In craft beer’s infancy, it wasn’t clear which beer would galvanize the industry until the IPA. Taking a traditional European style and reinventing it with punchier American hops appealed to U.S. tastes and created a sense of pride. 

“It goes well with America’s proclivity for bold flavors,” says Jeff Alworth, author of The Beer Bible. “Starbucks became popular with this overroasted flavor profile, super intense. California wines in the ’70s and ’80s were big, jammy, over the top... It’s not surprising we’re attracted to this big flavor from hops.”

That excitement, the very American desire for knockout flavors and another American habit—one-upmanship—took the IPA from a showcase for American hops to a stage for a bitter arms race. When California’s Stone Brewing unveiled Ruination, a West Coast double IPA, in 2002, the company threw down the gauntlet: Who could make, and drink, the most outlandishly bitter IPA? The “IBU Wars” were a turning point in IPA culture, presenting the first round of jokes and eye rolls aimed at the IPA consumer. 

“Craft is so much about innovation and what’s next, the IBU arms race was probably inevitable,” says Barrel-Aged Stout and Selling Out author Josh Noel. “IPA is great,” he continues, “so what about double IPA, triple IPA, even more IBUs?” Not only did the IBU Wars send American craft beer driving forward forever toward bigger and bolder, they introduced an element of toxic dude-ness to IPA connoisseurship. Led by Stone Brewing, IPA marketing became increasingly aggressive and arrogant. “It is quite doubtful that you have the taste or sophistication to be able to appreciate an ale of this quality and depth,” reads the marketing copy for Stone’s Arrogant Bastard Ale, which was released in 1997. In 2008, Green Flash Brewing Co. unleashed an IPA with a dare for a name: “Palate Wrecker.” In 2010, Mikkeller challenged drinkers’ thresholds with an IPA supposedly reaching 1,000 IBUs (it did not). This kind of marketing squarely targeted young white men.

“That was the whole game,” says Alworth. “It goes with the grunge thing—a really loud, punky decade of toxic white masculinity... All that stuff was pitched at a particular kind of person, and a lot of those people went on to found a lot of breweries in the U.S. in the early to mid-aughts.” 

A pendulum swing was inevitable. With The Alchemist’s Heady Topper, co-founder John Kimmich introduced the New England IPA, still more bitter than today’s NEIPAs, but with more body to support a massive hop character, and a bit of haze, which had been considered a fault in IPAs. Drinkers showed immediate interest in IPAs that showcased hop aroma rather than hop bitterness. Brewers subsequently went racing back down the IBU scale toward zero.

Not only did the IBU Wars send American craft beer driving forward forever toward bigger and bolder, they introduced an element of toxic dude-ness to IPA connoisseurship.

“Hazies have a lower bar to entry to casual drinkers, both due to the softer, creamier mouthfeel and the less bitter profile that mirrors citrus,” says Alex Kidd, founder of Don’t Drink Beer. That profile took some pandering twists that gave way to substyles like the “milkshake IPA.” 

The ensuing haze craze turned the IPA from a style encouraging men to peacock their bitterness tolerance to a beer for all comers. But it also cued up a new kind of cringeworthy behavior. Enter the “hazeboi” or “hazebro,” the IPA guy molded by craft beer’s new hypebeast drops and ensuing line culture. Beers like Heady Topper were sold in such limited amounts, in so few places, that fans began combing internet posts to arrange trades or traveling to breweries to queue for hours. An entirely new, albeit tiny, subculture of craft beer fans formed by the end of the aughts, later bolstered by the openings of cult haze-makers like Tree House Brewing Co. in Massachusetts and Other Half Brewing Co. in Brooklyn. (The latter gets the credit/blame for seducing finance bros, the flashy types that early IPA fans always thought their scene was safe from.) 

Suddenly, guys were paying people to wait in line to get the latest buzzy IPA, which could then be flaunted on Instagram as a status symbol. The message was simple: You had something exclusive, you had money to pay a line-sitter or buy upcharged beer, you had superior taste in beer. The same toxicity characteristic of the first-generation IPA guy remained an overtone, it had just switched from aggro bitterness mongering to hypebeast boasting. 

It didn’t hurt that the hazy IPA was itself Instagrammable. “It photographs very well because it’s semi-opaque in the glass,” says Dave Infante, author of the drinking culture newsletter Fingers. “Instagram was getting really popular midway through the last decade and breweries were starting to understand its power as a marketing tool. It became a good way to create content around these beers, essentially a visual prop in a glass.”

The Instagram-fueled demand for these beers compelled brewers to churn out more hazies to keep up, creating a cycle that pushed craft further toward a monoculture. “There’s no central clearing house of craft beer culture other than online,” Infante says. “That’s part of the reason trends in beer can be so amplified by online discourse. That’s where a lot of the culture-making discussion takes place; that circles offline where products are actually made and consumed, then circles back online to people’s reactions to it.”

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Another social media app was also defining hazeboi thirst. Born in 2010, beer-rating app Untappd helped introduce an aspect of gamification to beer culture. How many different beers have you tried? How many hops did they have? How many times were they dry-hopped? The most checked-in styles on Untappd are American IPA, New England IPA and double IPA; milkshake and hazy IPA ratings reach 4.5 of 5, while kölsch, a style of German lager, peaks at 4. The clear favoring of IPAs pressured breweries to give the raters what they wanted: more IPAs.

Today, however, the trading, line-waiting, Untappd-rating hazebros are finally being understood for what they really are: a tiny subset of beer drinkers that shouldn’t wield the power they once did. “I would never recommend anyone try to establish themselves [now] with 15 different IPAs,” says Wild East co-founder Brett Taylor, whose own brewery represents a renewed emphasis on traditional European styles that have become de rigueur in craft beer. “You need to show balance. Unless you can be a hot commodity and get on the hype train. To be the next Other Half... a lot of people have tried, but it’s a style where you have to move a ton fast.” 

The same way West Coast IPA drinkers experienced palate fatigue and turned to sweeter NEIPAs, now craft beer drinkers are looking to get back to basics with German and Czech lagers. They want variety and lighter options on tap. Even the IPA is welcoming a broader spectrum back into its zeitgeist, notes Weise, with a swing back to bitterness with the cold IPA and a renewed interest in the West Coast IPA, plus a growing segment of low- and no-alcohol options. 

Outside of the small craft beer audience, Andrea Hernández, author of food and beverage trend newsletter Snaxshot, argues that drinkers have moved on altogether. Hernández sees the “off-the-rails” flavors big companies are putting in their seltzers as the current wave of unhinged beverages, succeeding the likes of the milkshake IPA. “The [IPA guy] stereotype has evolved into the hard seltzer persona. We’ve gone beyond the stereotype of the IPA because it’s become irrelevant; now it’s the ‘White Claw [guy]’ or ‘Truly guy.’” 

Of course, obsessive haze-seekers still exist, but whether their ranks have shrunk or people just pay less attention, their online chatter is no longer a din. The IPA might still be cringe, but for a different reason now: It’s kind of embarrassing to even care that much about it.

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Tagged: beer, culture, trends